Sunday, August 20, 2017

When We Were the Next Generation

A minority group is prevented from buying food and supplies because powerful people have intimidated storekeepers.  This group finally occupies the street and is preventing anyone from buying at the stores.  The leader of this minority has a brief conversation with a storekeeper.

"It's not right to make innocent people suffer," says the storekeeper, meaning his regular customers.

"Those who think themselves better than others are not innocent," says the minority leader.

"But don't you understand--I was forced to do what I did."

"Cowards are even less innocent than hypocrites."

Robert Loggia as Elfego Baca
So what philosopher, what great statesman or author wrote this dialogue?  It was Maurice Tombragel.

 You've likely never heard of him.  I hadn't.  But he wrote this episode of what by then was called Walt Disney Presents in the late 1950s.  It was one of the series of hour-long stories centered on Elfego Baca, a Mexican-born hero of the American West, played by Robert Loggia.

The people in this minority group were called Mustangers, apparently poor whites from the Blue Ridge Mountains who at this point were trying to farm in the cattle-range West.  But they had all the characteristics of a minority suffering prejudice by others and oppression by the powers that be.  It's not hard to see parallels with another minority prominent in 1958.

We often think of westerns, so popular in my 1950s childhood, as a lot of fistfights, shooting and riding, and especially cowboys v. Indians.  But many were more than that, and few were as simplistic.

One reason was Maurice Tombragel.  After a decade writing a variety of B movies, he turned to television, especially westerns.  Before Disney, throughout the 1950s he wrote for The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, Annie Oakley, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Jim Bowie, Bat Masterson, the Range Rider.  I watched them all.

But of course it wasn't just him.  The very first network western TV series was Hopalong Cassidy.  It starred William Boyd, who had played the character in more than 60 movies, beginning in 1935.  Boyd, who'd started in silent films, bought all the rights and produced his own series for this new medium of television.   It began broadcasting in 1949 and became wildly popular.

The series episodes were digitally restored and are now available on DVD and on YouTube.   They are kind of amazing.  The plots are both simple and complex (some involving finance and real estate deals), and there's plenty of riding, fistfighting and shooting.  But there is also a common thread: Hoppy is always fighting for the oppressed, for people who are helpless against the more powerful, including those in authority.  He fights for people who are being cheated, and are the victims of prejudice and hate.

When Indians appear, they are either being set up as villains by white land-grabbers or victims of attempted swindles. The bad guys are usually motivated by greed.  He defends Mexicans, and there's even an episode about human trafficking.

(The Lone Ranger, who rode into television next, was also this kind of western hero. Clayton Moore, who played the LR, appears in a Hopalong Cassidy episode--as a bad guy.)

The first two TV heroes I knew were Captain Video and Hopalong Cassidy. I had Hopalong six-guns and holsters, a Hoppy toy box and other Hoppy toys to put in it.  The only pun I remember my Italian grandfather making was calling me Hopalong que-se-dice.

William Boyd was pretty old when he made these episodes, but we didn't notice (though once the series became a huge hit with kids, he played the parent--or grandparent-- figure with moments tagged onto the end, requesting that we brush our teeth and help out around the house.)  He was a hero.  I tried to imitate his walk and especially his laugh.

Did I absorb attitudes from these shows, perhaps even develop a social conscience because of them?  I think I did, partly.  Not only from my TV heroes, but certainly they were powerful in reinforcing and defining who the good guys and bad guys were, and why.

It's especially interesting to me at this historical moment to observe the historical moment when these shows were made.  People think of the bland 1950s, but apart from the atomic bomb and the Korean War, there was Joe McCarthy and the Blacklist, and the early Civil Rights movement and events.

But I think in some ways the most important element was that the memories and the meaning of World War II were still being absorbed.  The end of the war was only four years in the past when Hopalong Cassidy first hit the airwaves, and the Nuremberg trials only three years.

Thanks in part to Frank Capra's Why We Fight series and other movies and short films, and Norman Corwin's eloquent radio programs for CBS, there eventually was widespread awareness of  the evils of Nazism and fascism in the 40s, and that education continued after the war.

The contrast was often drawn between the US as defender of the oppressed, as a citadel of freedom from oppression.  For writers of even TV westerns, that consciousness transferred to other causes.

It wasn't always westerns.  When Superman flew out of the comics and into radio, he was heard battling religious bigots and the Ku Klux Klan.  The opening familiar from television ("truth, justice and the American Way") also included on radio a description of Superman as “champion of equal rights, valiant, courageous fighter against the forces of hate and prejudice.”

Superman came to television in 1952.  In that first year a two-part episode had originally been the movie that introduced George Reeves as Superman.  In it, Superman defends aliens (from the center of the Earth) against a persistent mob.  At one point he accuses the mob of acting like "Nazi stormtroopers."

Superman in this series fought crime but also defended the unjustly accused, and in an early second season episode with a plot that had appeared in the comics, he battled against the clock to stop an innocent man from being executed.

The Depression in its way, and World War II in another provided the stories that gave content to social conscience.  They in turn led to other stories, including the ones my generation saw and heard on television.  (The Blacklist led directly to some of these.  Some blacklisted writers fled to England and wrote episodes of Robin Hood and Sir Lancelot that did exactly what the blacklisters feared--poisoned our minds against racial prejudice and towards equality.)

Despite the dangers (i.e. every online argument, it is said, eventually gets to one or both sides accusing the other of being Nazis), I hark back to the Nazi era pretty frequently here.  One reason is that the generation that experienced World War II and may have seen Nazi Germany up close and personal, is all but gone.  Those of us who grew up on stories that had the Nazi experience fresh in their backgrounds and perspectives are getting pretty old as well.  But for as long as we can, we have to represent that perspective when it is important to do so.  As it seems to be right now.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Abyss Report (Updated)

New Yorker cover dated the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington
Two other new magazine covers are below.

Drip, drip, drip.

Saturday updates: Kennedy Center Honors reception at White House is cancelled, and the HH and spouse will not attend the awards at all. This event isn't until December. There have been protests and boycotts before, but is this the first time that the president hasn't presided?  Is there a president? 

The day's best headline is from Slate:Trump Describes Boston Protesters as “Anti-Police Agitators,” Misspells Heal Four Times

Friday afternoon updates: While media buzzes about the "firing" of Bannon, two observations:  First, his "interview" with the American Prospect editor told me he knew he was leaving and he was using his last days in office as a way to feel out possibilities for his post-WH career (which immediately included taking back control of his old propaganda unit.)  Second, he may be gone from the West Wing but he's very likely to still be advising Homemade Hitler, as other "fired" folk continue to do.  I see the New York Times agrees with me.  Still, the potential remains that the firing will be consequential, with the rabid right attacking each other.  I'm somewhat doubtful that much will change.  Bannon's balloon is set to deflate.

PoliticoWave of resignations hits Commerce Department’s board of ‘digital economy’ advisers.

President’s arts and humanities committee resigns over Trump’s Charlottesville response is another Politico headline.  After one member resigned with his own letter, the remaining 15 members of the committee resigned en masse with a letter that said in part: “We cannot sit idly by, the way that your West Wing advisors have, without speaking out against your words and actions,” members write in a joint letter to Trump obtained by POLITICO that ends by calling on the president to resign if he does not see a problem with what’s happened this week.  The story notes that the first letter of each paragraph spells out the word RESIST.  Later, the White House pretended they'd dissolved the committee on their own because it wasn't a good use of taxpayer's money.  Brave words from an administration that wastes more taxpayer money and funnels it to HH and his family in an hour than this committee ever spent.

The Hill reports: The pastor of a New York megachurch [Rev. A.R. Benard of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn] said Friday that he has resigned from President Trump's Evangelical Advisory Board, citing "a deepening conflict in values" with the administration.

And another R Senator speaks out: "GOP senator: Trump needs to be clear, white supremacists were 'solely responsible.'" Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma is a very conservative senator elected in 2014 in a special election, and re-elected to a full term in 2016.

On Thursday, in an on-camera interview, Republican Senator Bob Corker said: "The President has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful," and "has not demonstrated he understands the character of this nation."

Despite his goofy name, Corker is a silver-haired eminence who was reportedly considered for Secretary of State.  Corker also defended Arizona Jeff Flake (where do they get these names?  And we haven't even gotten to Senator Luther Strange) against attack by the White House, which included HH endorsing one of his primary opponents.  Both Flake and Corker are up for re-election in 2018.

Corker joined Senator Lindsey Graham in name-checking the apprentice dictator.  Corker raising the question of competence, and using the term "stability" were considered significant.  His statement was considered highly unusual for a Senator to make about the WH incumbent of his own party.

The highest ranking Democrat so far announced his intention to introduce a resolution of impeachment in the House.  He is Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee Steve Cohen of Tennessee.

James Murdoch, the CEO of 21st Century Fox and son of conservative media magnate Rupert Murdoch, ripped President Trump's response to violence in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend, also pledging a $1 million donation to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

The Hollywood Reporter reported Thursday that it had obtained the email memo Murdoch sent to friends. In the email, Murdoch says he was concerned with Trump's comments on the violence that broke out after a white supremacist rally last Saturday..."I can’t even believe I have to write this: standing up to Nazis is essential; there are no good Nazis. Or Klansmen, or terrorists. Democrats, Republicans, and others must all agree on this, and it compromises nothing for them to do so."

James Murdoch's father, Rupert Murdoch controls Fox News.


While HH defended Confederate war statues, the Congressional Black Caucus, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Senator Corey Booker called for such statues in the Capitol to be removed.  Republican Rep.. Tom Rooney of Florida agreed: "Confederate monuments in the U.S. Capitol should either be removed from the building and relocated to a museum or battlefield, or be appropriately contextualized as a symbol of slavery, a Republican lawmaker said Thursday."

However, for the moment, the greed of corporate leaders looking for a tax relief windfall will probably keep them in touch with the WH aides, and will keep National Economic Council head Gary Cohn from resigning.  The mere possibility he might quit sent the stock market sharply downward.  Thursday's word was that no other WH staff will resign either.  But hey, even worms can turn.



Think about the functions of the President.  Think about not being able to attend a funeral of an American killed in an act of domestic terrorism. (David Axlerod says that President Obama absolutely would have given the eulogy.)  Or to empanel a business advisory group on the critical needs of infrastructure.  Or even the ceremonial participation in American life, from recognizing a championship basketball team to honoring achievers in the arts:

Golden State Warriors superstar Kevin Durant says he won’t visit the White House to celebrate his team’s championship with President Trump if they are invited. "Nah, I won't do that," Durant said Thursday during an interview with ESPN. "I don't respect who's in office right now."Durant’s teammates, Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala, have each expressed reservations about going to the White House to celebrate their title with Trump."

Carmen de Lavallade, an acclaimed dancer and choreographer who will be recognized in the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony in December, will boycott the awards ceremony reception taking place at the White House.  De Lavallade, 86, was one of the first African Americans to dance for the Metropolitan Opera.

TV writer and producer Norman Lear, who previously called President Trump America's "middle finger," also said he will skip the reception.

America has no president.  How long can that go on?

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Abyss: Updates

So many corporate CEOs on two presidential advisory boards resigned or supported disbanding that the White House itself disbanded both.  But many CEOs acted under immediate pressure from the public, in some cases reversing the stands they made just hours before:

“The collapse of the CEO councils is not due to an outbreak of conscience,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “Instead, it is public pressure — pressure for the CEOs to evidence a measure of decency — that is driving them off the councils. That’s not exactly the most inspiring example of moral leadership. No profiles in courage here.”

Score one for the Resistance.

But even though stories continued to emerge of dismay in the White House and the administration, there were no resignations on Wednesday.  Jonathan Chiat notes that White House staff were shocked only that Homegrown Hitler made his racism public--they've been working hard to hide it, since they've heard him in private.  It's unlikely then that these cowardly enablers will step out of the moral abyss.

There were a few more measured statements from Congress but no profiles in courage there either so far.  A challenge has been made however, as several House Dems introduced a resolution to censure the apprentice dictator in the White House.  Supporting that is the only way out of the abyss for Republicans, but breath is not being widely held.  NBC and Fox new shows couldn't get a single Republican officeholder to talk on camera about this situation.

However, pretty interesting that dissidents to HH's rhetoric came from leaders of the US military.  The NYTimes:

Five armed services chiefs — of the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, the Marines and the National Guard Bureau — posted statements on social media condemning neo-Nazis and racism in uncompromising terms. They did not mention Mr. Trump by name, but their messages were a highly unusual counter to the commander in chief.

Meanwhile, Politico reports that Homegrown Hitler was pleased with his Tuesday performance, and so apparently was his alt.right aide:

The president was not alone in his pleasure at the news conference. Chief strategist Steve Bannon, whose nationalistic views helped shape Trump’s presidential campaign, was thrilled with the remarks, according to a friend of Bannon. Even though Trump on Tuesday failed to offer full-throated confidence in Bannon, saying, “We’ll see what happens with Mr. Bannon,” the controversy has brought some additional job security for the strategist, who has been on the outs with Trump and other White House aides."

This suggests to me that while some White House staff may have been blindsided by HH's statements on Tuesday, Bannon wasn't--he probably was the one who prepared the notes that HH was seen slipping into his coat pocket just before the press questioning began.  Enough of these notes was visible to determine they were about Charlottesville.

Add another to the White House roster of Nazis--the NY Times reports that the lead lawyer for HH on the Russian investigation forwarded an e-mail "echoing sucessionist rhetoric."

The Governor of Virgina followed the governor of North Carolina calling for all Confederate monuments in their states to come down. Meanwhile the city of Baltimore quietly took down four Confederate monuments, literally overnight.

On the history and its significance, Adam Goodheart writes persuasively in Politico that the erection of statues commemorating the Confederacy were deliberate political acts in times of renewed racial oppression, giving them a significance now that might be lost outside their local and historical context.

For example, the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville was not installed immediately after the Civil War but in 1924, the height of the Klan revival.

It is important for non-Southerners to try to understand the local context, from both sides of the racial divide.  At the same time, resurgent racism is not just a Southern phenomenon.  The Nazi who killed Heather Heyer and injured others came from Ohio.  Self-proclaimed Nazi groups hide out in isolated areas of the West.

As for history, a striking aspect of all this for me is the coincidence of my recent research into the old Post Office building in my hometown of Greensburg, PA, which turns out to be modeled very closely on the old Court House in Charlottesville.  In fact, I thought I spotted that Charlottesville building--now a library--in a photo of the strife there.

While Greensburg (being in a Union state) doesn't have a Confederate statue, it does share a history of hosting the Klan resurgence in the 1920s.  According to a local history, the Greensburg chapter was formed in 1921 and "was said to include many prominent county and Greensburg men."

Update: Here's an interactive map of the 917 hate groups in the US, as compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The Abyss


In the eyes of many, the apprentice dictator in the White House earned his full title of Homegrown Hitler on Tuesday when he angrily denied that the demonstration and violence in Charlottesville were chiefly expressions by those who call themselves alt.right, neo-Nazis and white nationalists or white separatists, but who must be called by their real name as well, just plain Nazis.

Historical context continues to broaden to take in this new reality.  Rachel Maddow produced a powerful narrative of the KKK's influence in American electoral politics in the 1920s, climaxing in several huge open marches in Washington, one involving 50,000 people, and a large and violent demonstration outside New York, that saw several arrests including HH's father.

She made two points: this has been part of American life and politics for a very long time, and it is not content to be a fringe group--"some peanut gallery for parolees."  It craves mainstream political power, and at this press conference, Homegrown Hitler went a long way towards giving them the space, especially since they can count on his tacit support.

Despite reports of White House staff consternation, Maddow insisted that these remarks were not entirely spontaneous, and in any case they were not an unintended screwup.  These groups have been "building back up for political power and terror for generations and he is now doing what he can to help them come back."  This fascistic element in American politics "is a real thing."

Meanwhile a piece in the Atlantic emphasizes the connection to 1940s Nazi ideology.  Many saw these Charlottesville events in the context of racism especially against African Americans, and it was surely that.  But as Emma Green points out in the Atlantic, much of the iconography was explicitly Nazi and many of the slogans chanted targeted Jews:

"Marchers displayed swastikas on banners and shouted slogans like “blood and soil,” a phrase drawn from Nazi ideology. “This city is run by Jewish communists and criminal niggers,” one demonstrator told Vice News’ Elspeth Reeve during their march. As Jews prayed at a local synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, men dressed in fatigues carrying semi-automatic rifles stood across the street, according to the temple’s president. Nazi websites posted a call to burn their building."

Among the most outspoken in response on Tuesday was former aide to Republicans G.H.W. Bush and John McCain, Steve Schmitt.  In tweets and on various talk shows, he spoke of the "psychological fragility" of HH', and tweeted: "This performance will send shivers down the spine of every Allied leader.  It will inspire every adversary.  Everyone sees the unfitness."

But the qualitative difference he saw was a public moral failure of unprecedented meaning and importance.  He called it the "most disgraceful performance" since film and television began recording such events.  "The moral failure is complete," he said.  "It's almost irredeemable."

Schmitt called it a "seminal moment for the Republican party. Republican leaders have to "censor" him "by name," "or slide into a moral abyss with him."

Will there be resignations from the administration?  In any past presidency that would be expected.  

It may be a seminal moment for the Republic as well as Republicans.  Already some are speculating on the likelihood of a new American civil war to the extent that there's a piece about it in the New Yorker.

How could that happen?  How does it happen elsewhere?

"Based on his experience in civil wars on three continents, Mines cited five conditions that support his prediction: entrenched national polarization, with no obvious meeting place for resolution; increasingly divisive press coverage and information flows; weakened institutions, notably Congress and the judiciary; a sellout or abandonment of responsibility by political leadership; and the legitimization of violence as the “in” way to either conduct discourse or solve disputes."

Meanwhile, President Obama's tweet quoting Nelson Mandela became the most liked tweet in Twitter history.  But one quote for the day was recalled by Brian Williams at MSNBC.  It's from Michelle Obama: "The presidency doesn't change who you are.  It reveals who you are." 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Ode to the Modern Man


“He goes, in a condescending amateurish way, into the City, attends meetings of Directors, and has to do with traffic in Shares. As is well known to the wise in their generation, traffic in Shares is the one thing to have to do with in this world. Have no antecedents, no established character, no cultivation, no ideas, no manners, have Shares. Have Shares enough to be on Boards of Direction in capital letters, oscillate on mysterious business between London and Paris, and be great. Where does he come from? Shares. Where is he going to? Shares. What are his tastes? Shares. Has he any principles? Shares. What squeezes him into Parliament? Shares. Perhaps he never of himself achieved success in anything, never originated anything, never produced anything? Sufficient answer to all: Shares. O mighty Shares! To set those blazing images so high, and to cause us smaller vermin, as under the influence of henbane or opium, to cry out, night and day, ‘Relieve us of our money, scatter it for us, buy us and sell us, ruin us, only we beseech ye take rank among the powers of the earth, and fatten on us!’”

Chareles Dickens
Our Mutual Friend 1865 chapt x

Monday, August 14, 2017

Occupy Washington


It was an extraordinary week just over, especially in what it said about the dangers presented by the apprentice dictator in the White House--the now always imminent dangers to the world with the nuclear codes and armed forces in his hands, the  deep dangers to the moral and institutional basis for a civilized nation as it faces an already perilous future.

Jeff Greenfield writes cogently about the moral danger represented by his response to Charlottesville:

"The more convincing explanation for Trump’s moral failure is that he is, and always has been, completely disconnected from any understanding of the American political tradition. It is why, uniquely among chief executives, he almost never quotes a past president or political figure or thinker, nor references any part of the country’s past. For Trump, there is no past; only himself, rising as a self-creation out of the mist. He feels no need to speak against the poison of bigotry because he has no clue about how that poison has infected our past, and still infects our present.

Among the many ways that Donald Trump is the most manifestly unfit president in American history, put this one near the top of the list."


John Cassidy writes about his alarming warmongering:

"As many commentators, myself included, have pointed out before, Trump’s Presidency represents an unprecedented challenge to the American system of government. Up until this point, some parts of the system—the courts, the federal civil service, the media, and other institutions of civil society—have withstood the challenge pretty well. But it was always likely that the biggest test would come in the area of national security, where the institutional constraints on the President are less effective. Now, it looks like the moment of truth is upon us, and so far the response has been alarmingly weak. Unless that changes, Trump might well drag the country into a catastrophic war."

Cassidy asks the question, who can stop him?  And the answer so far is, no one.  Congress has a couple of ways to get him out of office, but neither party has shown any interest in the attempt.  The opposition within Republicans has been growing-- especially this weekend--while the Democrats seem focused on 2018.  The presumption has been that they all could move incrementally and wait for the cover given by Robert Mueller handing out indictments and making his report, while 2018 might provide a more favorable Congress.

But last week that long game seemed suddenly way too long.  I've concluded that the only way things might happen sooner is enormous public pressure: either a real General Strike for a meaningful period, or an Occupy Washington by millions of protestors, who don't leave.  Or both.


There were demonstrations on Sunday all over the US about Charlottesville (the photos on this post are from Chicago, via Chicago Tribune.)  But it will take a lot more than that.

A couple of follow-ups to recent posts here.  On my Imagine This post:   The Atlantic reports that a 17 minute film made in the 1940s about how fascism can take over a country has gone viral on the internet. (Or at least a 2 minute clip from it.)  The Atlantic post includes the video, and it's here at the Internet Archive in a larger format.  This is the imagination at work.

On a different subject, Politico has a feature about a successful program used to treat Native Americans in Alaska with an integrated physical and mental health program, that works so well that it seems ripe for replication everywhere.

 This is more than a change to established practice.  It would have been considered unscientific heresy in past decades.  It took the heretics of  Esalen and New Age advocates in the 60s to begin changing that.  Now, after 50 years of ideas on integrated healing and experience with holistic medicine, it just seems like common sense.  Blame that on the 60s, too.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Imagine This


Around here we sometimes employ metaphor to make a point or suggest a texture, or recently, a direction.  Sometimes it's akin to those dystopian tales that are cautionary tales about future possibilities: a warning.

Then something like Saturday happens and we seem suddenly closer to seeing the somewhat metaphorical become actual.

The largest public gathering of white nationalists and neo-Nazis in a generation, or so some say, happened Friday night and Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia.  On Friday they incited violence.  On Saturday a likely white nationalist from Ohio drove deliberately into a crowd of peaceful counter-demonstrators marching in support of diversity, killing one immediately and injuring a score of others.

Then Homegrown Hitler spoke against the violence, without condemning or even mentioning the white nationalist haters.  New York's story quotes his response: But rather than clear the extremely low bar of denouncing neo-Nazis for causing mayhem and death, Trump took a different approach.

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides — on many sides,” he said.

He distanced himself from the events by making it clear that such unrest is nothing new, offered a few words of tone-deaf pablum about coming together as a country, and blew a possible dog whistle at racists by calling on Americans to “cherish our history.”

When a reporter shouted out a question about whether he wants the supports of white nationalists, the president ignored it.

After an immediate outcry on social media over Trump’s “many sides” wording, a White House spokesperson confirmed that Trump meant what he said, since “there was violence between protestors and counter-protestors today.”

As for a reason for this response, it was all too clear why:

Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, a Trump supporter who was in Charlottesville on Saturday, quickly replied. “I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists,” he wrote.

Asked by a reporter in New Jersey whether he wanted the support of white nationalists, dozens of whom wore red Make America Great Again hats during the Charlottesville riots, Trump did not respond."

There was almost universal condemnation of his statement, even among Republicans.  One piece by Chris Cilizza of CNN is representative.  He notes that part of the statement appeared to be a pre-emptive defense against those who point to his previous statements and behavior (and lack of them, as in his silence when a bomb was thrown into a Minnesota mosque) as encouraging racist/ alt.right/ neo-Nazi violence.

That's likely the subtext to President Obama's tweet on Saturday quoting Nelson Mandela:"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion..."

But this is a good deal more chilling than the usually nauseating statements by the apprentice dictator in the White House.  This is getting into Hitler territory in an astonishingly literal way.  Tacit support for actual neo-Nazis? White nationalists (like the one who is Homegrown Hitler's chief policy advisor) chanting the racist Nazi slogan Blood and Soil?  And it gets worse.

Look at this photo (all photos on this page are from Politico.)   The caption reads: Carrying body armor and combat weapons, white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" evacuate comrades who were pepper-sprayed after the "Unite the Right" rally was declared an unlawful gathering by Virginia State Police.

Now we can see the fruits, not only of the 2016 election, but the insane interpretation of the fourth amendment and the result of openly armed neo-Nazis on public streets during a fractious political demonstration.

An unofficial army of armed civilians helped begin the Nazi rise to absolute power in Germany.  Suddenly "Homegrown Hitler" doesn't sound so metaphorical.

I picked some day to turn the page of my current New York Review of Books to read a review of a documentary on the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi crimes and more recent instances of war crimes.  The review quotes Hannah Arendt's phrase "a criminal lack of imagination."  Better to imagine the implications now than to suffer the consequences when the "unimaginable" happens.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

EndTimes

After Hiroshima, many people--from scientists to ordinary citizens to journalists to high ranking military officers and even a few politicians--realized that nuclear war could threaten to end global civilization.  For at least a generation beginning in the 1960s, that threat was very real, and people felt it.

Today the end of civilization from nuclear war is still possible, if it cascades and  causes enough damage that civilization can't come back.  And while it is of less conscious concern today--except perhaps for times like the past week or so--it still is a background fear.

Since the early 1990s, many people--from scientists to ordinary citizens to journalists to high ranking military officers and even a few politicians--realized that the climate crisis could end global civilization.  Since around 2009, that threat became very real, and people feel it.

It would be interesting to track the similarities and differences in our responses to these two threats, and I may do a little of that here in passing.  But basically, this post is about the climate crisis and the end of civilization.

In early July, New York Magazine published an article by David Wallace-Wells titled "The Uninhabitable Earth" which took existing data on climate, and instead of choosing the most conservative prediction of consequences, or the happy medium as official reports often do, it chose the worst.  Not the worst imaginable, but the worst possible.

In Part I: Doomsday, subtitled Peering beyond scientific reticence, the author began:  "It is, I promise, worse than you think...

Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century."

I won't go into the details.  The author also provides an annotated version.  But the piece quickly became the most read article on the New York site ever, and started a controversy, including among climate scientists and activists.  Among them were climate scientist Michael Mann, one of the past targets of  denialists, who criticized the story for being "doomist."

Besides critiquing aspects of the science cited, Mann and others expressed the view that such doom drains people of hope, and in despair they will refuse to do what's necessary to address the causes of the climate crisis because it just won't matter.  Mann even took to the Washington Post to declare that "Doomsday scenarios are as harmful as climate change denial" (as the headline of his oped says.)  Emily Atkin in the New Republic called it "Climate disaster porn."

Others disagreed.  Susan Matthews in Slate wrote that ""alarmism is what we need to fight climate change" and that the Wallace-Wells story wasn't "scary enough." Science News looked at both sides of the question.

All of this was happening just as Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Sequel was being released.  In her New Yorker review of the film, Michelle Nijhuis mentioned the New York Magazine controversy, and seemed to come down against it, in praising an element of the movie:

"Psychologists have studied the dynamics of what advertisers call “fear appeals,” and they have found that while fear is very good at getting our attention, it’s not very good at keeping it. For that, the scary stuff must be followed by solutions that are small enough to be practical but large enough to be meaningful. Wallace-Wells’s article, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” successfully got attention... But it offers little in the way of fixes, nodding briefly to the allure—if not the wisdom—of geoengineering and suggesting that civilization will eventually cobble together a substantive response to climate change, if only because the alternative is so appalling. “An Inconvenient Sequel,” which is a work of advocacy rather than journalism, pivots efficiently away from its disaster reel and toward solutions, cheering the rise of cheaper renewables and the promise of the Paris climate accord, even in the wake of the U.S.’s withdrawal."


Perhaps surprisingly then, Gore (who used to talk about "solving the climate crisis and calls himself an optimist) not only praises Wallace-Wells article, but appeared with him in a live program after a film screening.  Gore said:
"I really admired the article you wrote, took note of some of the snipes and critiques, and I agreed with some of the climate writers that I most respect, like David Roberts and Joe Romm, who said, good for David Wallace-Wells, it’s a real wake-up call. We need to be aware of how things could go really badly wrong."

Even as this controversy was ongoing, news kept coming of how much worse things are getting.  Just a sampling of the stories, studies, and headlines: 
Hopes of mild climate change dashed by new research
 (the Guardian),
Earth to warm 2 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, studies say (CNN: 2 degrees is the red line scientists use to indicate the likely tipping point into irreversible and catastrophic climate change, hence some of the headlines that follow.)

Climate change will almost certainly heat the world so much it can never recover, major study findsThere's only a 10 per cent chance we'll avoid widespread drought, extreme weather and dangerous increases in sea level (the Independent.)  Similar stories ran in Wired, Science Daily, elsewhere.

And it kept on coming:Climate change pushing Asia towards doom, says report  (Gulf Times.) Climate change to cause humid heatwaves that will kill even healthy people (Guardian.) Extreme weather 'could kill up to 152,000 a year' in Europe by 2100 (BBC.)

In the past few days, there's the leaked final draft of a US interagency report which Slate said "paints an unsettling picture of dramatically rising temperatures that are already affecting the lives of Americans..."  The New York Times had extensive excerpts of this extensive study that confirms global heating due to carbon pollution and other "human activities," and the likely extent of consequences felt right now and in the future.

Meanwhile other headlines confirmed what is happening now. Suicides of nearly 60,000 Indian farmers linked to climate change, study claims (Guardian), We're choking on smoke in Seattle (New York Times: triple digit heat and smoke from forests burning in British Columbia), etc. etc. and finally:2016 Was Hot, Weird, and Unprecedented, Says NOAA (Atlantic) as the US agency formally announced that 2016 was (stop me if you've heard this one) the hottest year on record.

So what does it all mean?  What, if anything, is different?  And who is right in this doomist debate?

These latest studies, particularly predicting a range of the temperature rise already "baked in" which we can't do anything to stop, as well as how steeply humanity will have to cut greenhouse gas pollution to prevent much higher temperatures, tend towards confirming worse case scenarios.

But some observers have been quietly acknowledging this for some time--starting especially from the shocking acceleration in Arctic and Antarctic melting nearly a decade ago, which is still accelerating.  Here's what I think has changed.  While a cascade of possible effects would probably have to happen to make much of the planet uninhabitable by the end of this century,  the possibility has gone up that these global heating effects, plus socioeconomic and probably military effects they cause, will lead to a breakdown in global civilization by the mid to late 22nd century.  And yes, it could get worse from there.

That does not mean things will remain as they are until one of these vague dates in the future.  It could get very much worse suddenly at some point (a pulse of sea level rise, for instance) but it is likely to get gradually worse, with ever more obvious consequences.  (Several years ago, some experts suggested that the reality and direction of change will be obvious to everyone by 2050.  They may have revised that date by now.)

What is all but certain is that we haven't begun to imagine, let alone face, the consequences of the climate crisis.  As far as I've seen it hasn't been really done in fiction.  Kim Stanley Robinson acknowledges the climate crisis as the cause of major changes but doesn't write about the worst of those changes.  And doomsday explorations like The Road don't relate their apocalypse to the climate crisis.

Because of global heating, life in the future is very likely to be very different than it is today.  The life of every person is going to be different, beginning at least with children now in school.  In some ways they may have more fulfilling lives, but they may well have harder lives.  Gore says we're in the early stages of a revolution, and those lives may be in the thick of that, addressing the causes and effects of the climate crisis, including at very basic levels.

 Beyond that, and beyond the next generation or two, it's hard to say.  But it will never again be as it is now.  Not this planet, not civilization, not humanity.

As for doom, there's always a difficulty in discussing apocalyptic futures, in that this is a big world, and the future is even bigger.  Describe a dystopian future, and there are probably people somewhere living in it right now.  So whose future are we talking about?

But I believe there is one aspect of the future that seems extremely likely, and this touches upon the doom debate.  For years, people in the environmental community especially have refused to talk directly about one probable consequence of the likely cascade of effects caused not only by the climate crisis itself but by mass species extinction, deadly pollution of the oceans, deforestation and other ongoing destruction to the Earth as a living system.

That consequence was once whispered about, borrowing a term from plant biology, as "dieback."  Human dieback.  It is likely that Earth of the future, perhaps the relatively near future, will have a significantly smaller human population, and while some of that decrease will occur naturally, some or much of it will be the result of mass deaths.

This occasionally sneaks into environmental analyses, such as the 2011 book The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding.  Billed as an "optimistic" view of the climate crisis--that is, that civilization will somehow get through it--it nevertheless contains this single astounding sentence:“I expect we’ll tragically lose a few billion people.”

He doesn't say much more about that, and nobody does.  But it does suggest more than Gilding's subtitle--"an end to shopping."  A few billion people--meaning what? More than two billion, I'd guess-- is a significant chunk of the 7.5 billion now living.  The most vulnerable first, probably, and heating is predicted to be worst in the poorest parts of the world, but epidemics and the fragility of our civilization's supply lines could change that calculus.  It's a horrible thought, and nobody wants to say it out loud.

But that doesn't mean people--ordinary people-- haven't thought it.  Generations of Americans were told and taught not to express fears about nuclear war, because those fears played into enemy hands, showed lack of confidence in our leaders, were unpatriotic.  (That's after officials stopped lying about how pleasant radiation poisoning is, and how you can protect yourself from a nuclear explosion by 'duck and cover.')

But those fears just dove deep into individual and societal unconscious, emerging in nightmares and neuroses, and got expressed and defused in popular entertainment--specifically the bug-eyed monster movies of the 1950s, that Susan Sontag had the insight to see were more than they seemed.

 Eventually after the atomic monsters brought the subject into the open, movies could be made about the real causes and effects of nuclear war,  from Fail-Safe and Doctor Strangelove, to the UK's The War Game, US televisions Threads, to two films that actually changed minds and galvanized public support to control nuclear weapons: the 1959 star-studded feature On the Beach, and the TV drama The Day After.

There are lots of reasons for the current plethora of dystopian fictions and movies, or the fashion for zombies on television as well as film and print.  But the unconscious fear of endtimes is an unacknowledged wellspring.  The climate crisis and other environmental catastrophes are part of that fear. Whether these indirect approaches eventually result in a more conscious approach that changes minds and policies remains to be seen.

It may be too late to prevent large-scale changes (and therefore personal changes affecting everyone) and hardships, but perhaps the worst may still be averted, and the times to come may better be faced by a more prepared generation.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Presidential Portrait


I've avoided even a single photo of our apprentice dictator since the election of November 2016.  Why feed the beast?  But since he's truly outdoing himself this week, it's time to show him as he really is.

Consider this also an illustration of that comforting story in the Washington Post, in which the effect on the careers of military officers in refusing to carry out an order for a nuclear strike is the rationale for carrying it out.  A dilemma for today's General Buck Turgidson.

 Because according to this story, essentially this is the one and only case in which one person-- the guy pictured above--can give an order and it will immediately be carried out.  He can order transgender people out of the military and nothing happens.  He can order an unhealthcare bill be passed and nothing happens.  He can order me to get him a sandwich and I guarantee you that nothing will happen.  But he can order thermonuclear war and within minutes it will begin.

But Of Course! Blame It On the '60s

Not that it matters all that much these days, but I haven't been so annoyed by such a wrongheaded and overreaching piece in a long time as by Kurt Andersen's opus in the Atlantic, "How America Lost Its Mind."

It's frustrating because the piece makes a case--an easy-to-make case--that the minds of some Americans are conspicuously untethered to reality, and that this has political consequences.  But his analysis why this is happening right now is either glibly nebulous and unconvincingly supported or just oversimplified to the point that it's simply wrong. The question of "How America Lost Its Mind" is therefore in reality unanswered.

It really goes off the rails when he attributes much of the phenomenon to that grand bugaboo of our time, the 1960s.  Of course!  Why be original when you can be popular? He tries to lend his thesis credence by noting that he was a child then.  Well, I was a young adult at the end of the decade, and I saw things a lot differently.

I don't deny that some of what we are seeing now constitute perversions of cultural phenomena of the 60s, but not only of the 60s or after. The '60s also did not invent ignorance and isolated cultural myths.  He does mention some of this history, but always we come back to the 60s.  In many ways the 60s are just a target of convenience, not to mention a right wing bugaboo popularized by Newt Gingrich in the early 90s, that still plays well in certain quarters today.

Nobody denies there were excesses in the 60s.  But there were reasons for those excesses.  What happened in the 60s relating to conventional wisdom didn't happen all on its own. Much of it was in reaction to the failures and limitations of the conventional wisdom, and the fact that these failures were causing real harm, from stultified and despairing lives, to dead Americans and Vietnamese.  As well as threatening the planet with the thermonuclear logic of the Cold War.

In fact the major critique made in the 1960s was: underneath this mask of rationality, America is already insane.  If America lost its mind, it was already gone by the premier of Doctor Strangelove.

Andersen writes that the 60s fostered crazy conspiracy theories, and anti-science attitudes.  He mixes politics and New Age assertions as the reasons.

But let's separate a few things.  First, conspiracy theories of any kind did not begin in the 1960s.  Nor did the belief in UFOs, etc.

Second, let's remember the political situation.  The critique against the Vietnam War was begun, not by ideologues or conspiracy theorists, but by scholars.  The teach-ins of the mid-60s showed how the conventional wisdom in Washington was wrong about history, geopolitics and warfare in Asia.  They also asserted a different set of values and moral calculations, but their point was: the conventional wisdom was wrong.

Later in the 60s it was asserted, documented and proven that in addition to being wrong, those in charge of the conventional wisdom about Vietnam were lying.  There was in fact a conspiracy to keep facts from the American people.

Also, among the "conspiracies" that protestors talked about were that anti-war groups were being infiltrated by government agents and government provocateurs, and that lots of people were being monitored for their anti-war activity.  All of that turned out to be true.  Just as the later conspiracy 1970s theory that there was an organized coverup of ongoing authoritarian crimes in the White House.

Or the 1950s conspiracy theory that there is a military-industrial complex that perpetuates a certain conventional wisdom in foreign and domestic policy.  I believe that was started by that noted nutcake conspiracy theorist, Dwight David Eisenhower.

Anderson apparently sees the roots of today's anti-science crowd in the New Age movement, tracing it all to the Esalen Institute.  And the justification for believing anything counter to science is the fault of the 60s philosophy: "Do your own thing, find your own reality, it’s all relative." 

Anderson appears to have no idea of the meaning of those phrases in their contexts.  Breaking out of the strictures of convention, not settling for mind-numbing, soul-destroying conventional careers, especially those that were actively destructive, and not being afraid to live creatively,  were the references.  "It's all relative" and reality as a construct were philosophical--and scientific-- statements about the nature of reality.

Yes, it was about questioning authority.  It was fundamentally about questioning authority.  Which science is supposed to do, but not only science.

The excesses of New Age thinking (which didn't get formalized by that name until the 70s) have been individually critiqued, often by prominent participants of the time.  But Esalen was also home to Gregory Bateson (author of Steps To An Ecology of Mind and Mind and Nature) and others who developed concepts crucial to systems thinking and cybernetics, as well as ecology.

Exploring relationships of mind and nature, science and spirituality, the individual and society, fact and value, and well as bravely exploring areas that may yet find a place in explaining reality, remain relevant.  As messy and goofy as some of those explorations may have been in the 60s.  (At least we had some fun.  Maybe that's behind all this.  We had too much fun.  Well, don't worry.  We also had a lot of pain.)

Some of those "unscientific" explorations are, fifty years later, accepted within the body of science. Esalen developed or introduced therapies that explored mind/body connections, and the application of nonwestern practices such as yoga, that are part of holistic medicine as practiced today, including by certified physicians who integrate it into their conventional medicine practice.

Even some of the apparent excesses Anderson "exposes," like R.D. Laing's approach to mental illness, were responses to the corruption of the conventional treatments of the day, yielding insights that today are themselves conventional.

Lynn Margulis, a hero of science who
questioned conventional evolutionary
science--and won.
And that's really the problem that pieces like this share with others that try to explain the origins of today's attitudes towards certain scientific findings.  They tend to be all or nothing, either/or.  Either you adhere to the conventional wisdom on evolution, say, or you must be an anti-science creationist.

Or in another common formula, you must accept all conventional conclusions--extremely well-founded ones based on years of results taking numerous approaches such as climate change--as well as others that are more narrow, and dubiously aligned with corporate interests--or you are anti-science.

  Or the big one: if you believe that science may not be up to explaining everything about reality, then you are an anti-science bigot.

There are people who are anti-science, at least in one area or another (they don't "believe" in evolution but accept medical science) and then there are people who don't believe in bad science.  The 60s revolted against inadequate narrowness in the conventional scientific wisdom of the day--and there is always very powerful conventional scientific wisdom.

Some of what people in the 60s came up with remains fringe if not disproven, but other ideas have become quite respectable.  It used to be believed that people couldn't intentionally change body states or brain activity.  Now the results of brain scans on Buddhist monks in deep meditation have proven they can.  Again, mind/body relationships are now part of medical practice.  Much of what today is called preventive medicine was dismissed by scientists back then.  Maybe even called pseudoscience and New Age anti-scientific drug-addled hippie nonsense.

Others aspects of Anderson's piece are equally maddening, as in the 60s elevation of fantasy (without the context of its cultural critique, and suggesting that it implied no operational difference between fantasy and reality) as the reason that fantasy movies and television are so prevalent, and so many people are deeply involved in those worlds.

Well, people have been deeply involved in fantasies, and at some level believed them to be true, for not just fifty years but thousands of years. The history of drama, from myths chanted around the winter fire to medieval mystery plays and so on, all suggest such involvement is hardly new.

 Story-telling is a human cultural expression and product, with all kinds of functions.  Quite a few cultural observers explore why fantasies are prevalent, and why particular fantasies are prevalent at a given time. It's an entertaining and at times enlightening game.  I play it myself.  But it requires a less blunt instrument than this piece brings to bear.

We might suggest, for example, one reason for the prevalence of fantasy stories might be the novelty of how they are told, especially the special effects and the relationship to gaming, social media and fandom.

Moreover, many of these fantasies inevitably explore reality through metaphor or character, as stories and especially myth always do, if only in the responses of some of their readers or audience.  They may be as much an escape from the noise of the moment into the nub of reality, or at least other possibilities, as an escape from reality itself.

Anderson makes other remarks about the 60s that also miss the mark.  He skeptically critiques The Greening of America (a 1970s best seller) as if what he has to say is a revisionist expose, when in fact that book was largely laughed at in media of the time, particularly in the alternative press.

 I hope that future writers looking for a cultural fall guy will restrain themselves from choosing the popular target of the 1960s.  But I'm not counting on it.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Library Days

the former Greensburg Public Library on South Main
I was probably nine, maybe ten when I got my first library card.  It was a momentous act.  I doubt that I had ever read a complete book yet.  But apart from the stories in the Book House books, or in Boy's Life magazine, which I started getting by subscription when I joined a Cub Scouts den in fourth grade, the only place that had reading I might be interested in was the public library.

I remember talking it over with my mother, and she accompanied me to the library and they signed me up.  After that, I went to the library on my own--a few times with friends (especially after Saturday afternoon movies) but mostly on my own. It was the beginning of my life of independent reading.

It may be difficult for readers today to believe it, but I walked to town unsupervised before I was ten.  It was just under a mile, a straight shot down and up hills, down West Newton Road and across to continue as Pittsburgh Street, finally, steeply up to the business district on the crest of a hill.

The first public library in Greensburg opened in June 1936, ten years before I was born.  Before that, libraries were associated with schools but mostly the private property of wealthy families.  One such library was featured in the palatial home of Major William Stokes, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania Railroad, built in 1846 and situated on a high hill where the Seton Hill University campus is now.  (The building itself survived as St. Joseph's Academy, later renamed St. Mary's Hall. As the original building of the college, I believe at least part of it is still there.  It was visible from the window of my very first home on College Avenue.)

That library is intriguing because it may have inspired a young visitor to the house in 1852, a telegraph operator named Andrew Carnegie.  It was apparently the first library he'd seen and it impressed him.  Ironically perhaps, though Carnegie built some 1700 public libraries across America, there was never a Carnegie library in Greensburg.  He did offer to build one in 1896, but he always insisted that the host municipality pay for upkeep, and Greensburg demurred.

The first attempt at a public library quickly outgrew its space, and General Richard Coulter, who commanded troops in World War I and belonged to a prominent Greensburg family wealthy from banking and coal, donated his old home on South Main Street.  (Built in 1881, this may have also been the home of his father, the first Richard Coulter, who was a member of Congress and a state supreme court judge.) It opened as the Greensburg Public Library on June 26, 1940, almost precisely six years before my birth.

This is the building where I got that first library card, and which I frequented until I left for college.  On that first day I learned the terms: I could borrow as many as three books from the children's room (but only from there), for two weeks, with the opportunity to renew for another two weeks.  Fines for overdue books were on the order of a penny to three cents a day.

I was probably asked what kind of books I was interested in, and I mentioned science fiction, or at least spaceships.  I was steeped in Saturday morning shows like Space Patrol, Tom Corbett and Rocky Jones: Space Ranger, and even before that, I'd watched Captain Video every evening.  By then the exciting Man in Space episode of Tomorrowland on the Disneyland hour may have aired. I'd seen a few science fiction movies, and may have read a Robert Heinlein story in Boy's Life.

So I went home that day with The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree by Louis Slobodkin.  It looked like this, although I remember the cover as red.

So many times--up the steps, into the front door, with the circulation desk dead ahead.  A sharp left turn and down a few polished wooden steps to the children's room.  In a few years, I would be sneaking behind the bulletin board at the far right corner of the room, which hid the dimly lit adult stacks in the rooms next to it, books from ceiling to floor.

It was a bit spooky in there at first.  But by junior high years, having learned the rudiments of the Dewy Decimal System and how to use the card catalog, I searched and browsed back there.  I also checked the shelves of new books on the wall just opposite the circulation desk, to the left of the entrance.

To the right were a couple of smaller rooms, one of which was the reference library, with a big globe.  I remember reading chapters in the Catholic Encyclopedia in there on a high school evening, shocked by what some of the Popes had gotten up to.

In the early '60s I discovered that I was allowed to take the stairs to the second floor that began just behind and a little to the right of the circulation desk.  On the second floor was a room of recordings, and a record player.  Amazing!  Classical, jazz and most importantly just then, folk music albums.

Then I learned I could take some out.  Just about all I knew of folk music was what was on popular radio--mostly the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary.  So it was the public library that introduced me to Odetta, Miriam Makeba, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

I also was introduced to recorded humor--the albums of the new comedians I saw on TV like Bob Newhart, but especially to the satiric Stan Freberg.  I loved those albums!  Freberg (among others) inspired me to write satirical scripts and record them with three friends (The Four Frauds) and later I learned songs and even stole funny bits from those folk albums, as three of us morphed into a folk group, the Crosscurrents.

The public library provided access to records I didn't know about and couldn't afford to buy anyway.  But it mostly put books into my hands--books I had no other way of even touching, let alone reading.

 Going to the library, selecting the books, were among my first independent acts. Being conscientious about getting the books back on time was among my first independent responsibilities...And of course I remember fondly several of the library ladies who were always there--friendly, sometimes scary, but who knew me and talked to me as a reader.

Several years after I'd left for college, in 1969, the library moved to a much bigger building, the massive old Post Office a block away on Pennsylvania Avenue.  The Post Office moved into a new and smaller building across the street.

This building, now called the Greensburg-Hempfield Area Library, itself has a complicated history I haven't entirely put together yet.  It opened in 1911--old enough to offer a prospect for watching one of the last Buffalo Bill Wild West Shows parade into town.

One Greensburg history says it was built according to the plan for the Charlotteville, Virginia post office (1905), and indeed they look all but identical.  (That's Greensburg above, Charlottesville left.)

That provenance may help account for the prominent columns and portico--though a popular style at the time (variously called colonial revival, neo-colonial and Beaux Arts) it especially echoes a lot of Charlottesville (and University of Virginia) buildings, which themselves echo Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home outside that city.

The Greensburg building's interior was extensively renovated in 1934-5, and it's likely that this project was designed and carried out by Samuel Plato, the first African American to receive commissions to build US Post Office buildings. He was also a builder who insisted on integrated work forces.  (The Greensburg connection is according to the Filson Historical Society in Kentucky, which houses Plato's papers.)

 The 30s and 40s were busy in Greensburg and Westmoreland County, so this was not just the post office but the county Federal Building, housing offices of the Agriculture Department, U.S. Navy, IRS, Civil Service Commission, Census Bureau and the congressional district office.

It seems likely that the renovation was at least in part a New Deal project, but I can't find documentation of that. I'm still looking into the history of this building and this 1930s project, so if anybody in Greensburg could find and photograph a cornerstone dedication or a plaque inside the building, I'd love to have it.  It's puzzling to me that Greensburg seems to ignore this building and its history, even though it seems to be within its official historic district.

 When I returned to town for a couple of hitches in the 70s and 80s I dropped by the library in its new building.  The entrance area was huge, the circulation desk impressively big, and the ceilings very high.  The first time I visited there was even one of the same library ladies there.  I asked her if she remembered me.  "Yes," she said, not approving of my beard, however.  "You look like an old sailor."  I immediately thought of all the books I'd borrowed that featured ships and the sea.

At this point they were getting rid of old books and had them on sale in the lobby or just outside.  I bought my cherished two volume set of William Manchester's history of the 20th century, The Glory and the Dream, for twenty cents.  And a first edition of Wallace Stevens' first book of poems, for a dime.

A final anecdote suggests a different aspect of this story.  Sometime in the late 70s or early 80s I was suddenly inspired to look for a book I'd taken out in high school.  I found it in the stacks. It was obviously the very same copy (dark blue, gold lettering.)  The old card system was still being used, with a card in a pocket just inside the book to indicate the due date.  Often this card traveled with the book, and had its title and number on it, as well as the signature of the person borrowing, so you could actually see how many times it had been taken out, and by whom.  Homeland Security would have loved it.

As I took the book to the circulation desk, I glanced at the card.  The first and last time it had been taken out was 1963, and the first and last person to take it out was me.   The book was by Richard Hofstader: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.


It's a small town library, serving small town people.  But among those people is somebody like me; in fact, for those years, exactly me.  This book, clearly of minority interest, was here.  They bought it and kept it, and it waited for me.  The public library is open to all, but serves individuals within the all.  Even a minority of one.  And we all get to borrow these books, on the same easy terms.  The public library is a miracle.  It's the most democratic of institutions, and therefore, a democratic miracle.

As for the first book I borrowed, The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree, it's a somewhat witty tale that today would remind people of E.T.  But after my two weeks were up I took it back without completing it.  Reading a whole book is a skill, and in my case it took more time to acquire it.

I would soon find on those shelves just the books to really get me started.  But that's for next time.